head-of-medusaStaring up from the floor, the serpent-crowned head of Medusa regarded me with cold indifference. Her guarded smile spoke of cunning and secrets. A daughter of a sea god, she was tragically cursed by Athena for defiling a temple to the resentful war goddess. In her later life, Medusa was both beautiful and terrifying. She was a villain, a guardian, a Gorgon, a monster.

But down here, below the depths of the Bellingshausen underground, with tangles of living modified enemies dragging the streets and corridors above, what protection could we expect from the Supreme Talisman?

“She’d be pretty pissed off to know that you were using her head as a workstation,” Ghia said, as she brushed past with an armload of equipment. “Whoever she is.”

I took a step back and looked down into the eyes of the stone figure. “She’s a character from Greek mythology,” I said. “They call her Medusa.”

Ghia stopped and gave me an incredulous stare. “How could you possibly know that?” she asked.

I smiled. “They conceal that kind of information in books.”

“She’s horrible,” Ghia said, shaking her head. “And here you’ve set up your workplace on top of her. Aren’t you afraid of offending?”

The massive stone-carved head sat in the center of the floor, surrounded by dozens of carvings and sculptures and statues of long-forgotten gods and demons – created by the original stone workers who carved the underground structure that supported Bellingshausen. Abolished by Spegg and the other founders of this miserable place, the old gods were hidden away in this deep recess and lost to memory over the generations that followed.

Curiously, as it lay on its side, the head of Medusa was flat on both top and bottom, perhaps as a support for a column or another figure. It was a perfect table top.

“No,” I said in reply. “I’m sure she’s just as surprised to see me as I am to see her.”

Ghia dropped the gear on the floor near a wall carving of a polar bear with a triangular head and long claws locked in mortal combat with a massive raven. It was probably part of a story from Inuit folklore.

Ghia rubbed her arms and looked around nervously. “This is a den of monsters. I never liked it here.”

I stifled the urge to chuckle. “You brought us, Ghia. This is your place. Not mine.”

Ghia leaned against console workspace next to me. She pulled a gleaming eight-inch blade from the sheath on her hip. She twirled the knife through her fingers in a show of dexterity. I gave her no more than a glance and a nod.

“This place exists out of necessity. My father was a superstitious man,” she said. “He didn’t approve of these things but once they were brought to life, he wouldn’t dream of destroying them. Bad things happen.”

“That’s interesting,” I said. It wasn’t.

“My father once said that those who keep company with false gods will always be afflicted with their madness and fall prey to their treachery.”

“That’s a bit ironic.”

“You’re not superstitious at all, are you?” she asked.

I shook my head. “Spegg is the only false god here,” I said. “And I’ve killed his kind before.”

Ghia gave me a stern eye and bit her lip. At a quick glance, I couldn’t tell if she was deeply curious – or doubtful.

Voices came from outside the entrance to the underground storeroom. Ghia turned her attention to the door – a thick wooden construct with a stone façade on the outside. It was nearly invisible to any external examination. I looked over my shoulder and cocked an ear. Dada and Parker had passed by Pili standing guard in the passageway outside.

The depth of the room and the thick stone walls muffled much of the sound coming from inside. Outside sensors – in the underground and above – were useless to the LMOs. We could breathe easy here. The rough-hewn passageway did, however, allow outside noises and voices to echo as they came down from the unused sewer channel above. We would hear stalkers and crawlers long before they’d find any evidence of our new base of operations.

Dada entered with two large duffle bags of supplies. “We have food and water for the week,” he said. “Parker and Marianne are bringing down some heat and some sleeping gear.”

“Good news,” I said.

“Who could sleep in this place,” Ghia whispered.

Dada ignored Ghia, approached the workstation, and leaned over my shoulder.

I worked the signal probe that bit into the fiber lines pulled from the piping above. The short holographic display over the workstation lit up with signal information. I probed further and selected a line. The signal was open enough. I could jack in and pump the line full of data – more than we could ever need at any location in the Fifth Ring.

“Tell me what you’re doing again,” Dada said.

“We’re going to make some noise through a series of their non-primary communications lines. It’s going to sound like a low crackle and hum – if they ever manage to tune it up.”

“And you’re going to hide a signal inside that noise?”

“The signal is the noise – but that’s my intention, yes.”

Dada bent his brow. “How does a live signal – of any type or quality – keep any of our transmission safe?”

“On this end, it’s broken signal without consistency or rhythm – a murmur, a rattle, a series of clicks. Any receiver we set up will have a sort of decryption key that I’ve altered to make content out of the clatter and translate that content into a working signal again.”

Dada shook his head in mild disbelief. “That’s highly adept.”

“In my previous life, I was the guy they sent in to find these kinds of signal degradations and fix them. At a Hyperdrive Assist Station, that kind of line noise interfered with guest-ship communications…” I trailed off. I noticed Dada nodding slowly. His eyes told me that he had absolutely no grasp of what I was suggesting.

“Bad things happen,” I said, eyeing Ghia.

Dada appeared satisfied.

“Now I’m creating the same line noise from scratch,” I continued. “The fishheads and anyone at Central Ring Command and Control are going to need a guy like me to un-clutter this line – if they can even find the signal.”

Dada smiled and clapped me on the back. “One step closer to the goal. Thank you, Maxim.”

“My pleasure,” I replied. “Once we have outgoing communications set up, we can bite into any of their primary lines. From there, we can clone and mask their signals as collateral line noise and push it all the way back to this location.”

Dada got it. “We can copy their transmissions, turn it into useless junk noise, and reassemble it here to use as we please,” he said.

“Exactly.”

“Then what?” asked Ghia.

I stepped back from the workstation and leaned on my palms. From that angle looking down, it appeared that Medusa was giving me the side-eye – disapproval or scorn. I ignored her. I thought of how access to their communications and movements would allow us to work in relative secrecy. I nodded approvingly to myself. I looked up at Dada and Ghia. “We’ll have them then,” I said. “We can skirt their every move – come and go as we please. We may even be able to punch through to the Fourth Ring and move in closer.”

Ghia made a grunting noise. “What makes you sure than you can pull this off?” she asked. “Those fishheads in their tall tower think they’re pretty smart.”

“A hundred-plus years of experience tells me I can.”

Ghia narrowed her eyes and threw a glance at Dada. “How old are you again?” Ghia asked.

I let out a breath. “Why does that question keep coming up?”

[Communication Relay:  15JAN2087 Alexander Island, Antarctica]